We're headed into the second-to-last full Saturday of the regular season, folks. With Notre Dame remaining at No. 4 in the College Football Playoff Poll, that golden ticket is so close we can taste it. It tastes like field turf, oddly enough. Imagine that.
Anyway, below is a breakdown of the moving parts and scenarios that need to happen (most likely) for Notre Dame to make the playoffs. Of course, we're working under the assumption that the Irish finish the season with 2 more wins. #nojinx
Playoff Representation Temperature: Cold
Some have postulated that the Pac-12 is the best conference this year, or at least the most competitive and deep league. However, as CW mentioned in our writers email chain, "Bros, have you seen how the Pac-12 did out of conference this year? It was dismal." Combine that with every team in the league having 2 losses and the Pac-12 is on the outside looking in right now for a playoff spot.
Teams Still Alive: #11 Stanford, #13 Utah
The Pac-12 isn't completely out of the picture yet. Both the Cardinal and Utes lost last week but didn't fall very far due to strong resumes. Stanford, with only 1 league loss, controls their destiny in regards to a conference title. With a win at home over California this weekend the Cardinal will clinch the Pac-12 North Division.
Utah does not have the luxury of controlling their destiny. They face UCLA and Colorado, both at home, to wrap up the regular season but need USC to lose once more. Both the Trojans and Utes have 2 losses in conference play and USC holds the tie-breaker due to their blowout of Utah earlier in the season.
What's Best for Notre Dame?
Obviously, the Irish need Stanford to beat California, preferably handily, which should move the Cardinal inside the Top 10 of next week's playoff poll leading up to Notre Dame's visit to Palo Alto. From there, Stanford beating anyone in the Pac-12 Title Game should be gravy. At 10-3, the Cardinal may not be seen as an elite team but they'll easily be a Top 15 team, conference champion, and Rose Bowl representative.
In the South, the Irish could use a boost by USC winning out. However, that may be a tall task, as the Trojans have Oregon tomorrow and UCLA next week. Odds are they'll probably split those games to finish 8-4 overall and with 3 conference losses. They could still make the league title game if Utah trips up (most likely to UCLA) once, though. A Stanford vs. USC matchup in the Pac-12 Title Game is ideal for Notre Dame.
Playoff Representation Temperature: Hot
No conference is positioned as well to clinch a playoff berth as the Big Ten. They have the most teams ranked in the current playoff poll and the situation is likely to unfold where the winner of the East division will make the playoffs if they can win the Big Ten Title Game.
Teams Still Alive: #3 Ohio State, #5 Iowa, #9 Michigan State, #12 Michigan, #25 Wisconsin
Northwestern, currently #20 in the playoff poll, is likely eliminated from playoff contention. They have 2 losses in league play, and in the event that undefeated Iowa loses their last 2 games, the Hawkeyes would still take the division due to head-to-head matchup.
For now, Wisconsin is on the very outermost periphery of teams that still technically have a chance. With only 1 league loss (remember their 2nd loss was to Alabama) they need Iowa to drop their last two games so the Badgers can win the West division. Even then, I'm not sure a 11-2 Wisconsin gets into the playoff. They'd have a best win over the B1G East winner then Northwestern and a really thin resume for their next top wins.
You're smart so ya'll know that as undefeated teams both Ohio State and Iowa control their own destiny. Win out and you're in the playoff.
What's Best for Notre Dame?
At this point too much carnage would need to happen for a Big Ten team not to get into the playoff. Therefore, from the Irish perspective making sure a second team in the league does not have a legitimate chance is the best course of action.
The ideal scenario is simply Ohio State winning out. They have the ability to knock out Michigan State, Michigan, and Iowa in consecutive weeks. There's a chance Michigan could win the Big Ten and not get into the playoff, too. Michigan State needs to fall to Ohio State and then the Wolverines need take care of business against Penn State, upset the Buckeyes, and then defeat the winner of the Big Ten West.
Playoff Representation Temperature: Mild+
The ACC is in good shape with the current #1 team in the playoff poll, but things aren't quite hot as they are relying almost entirely on one team with the Tar Heels of North Carolina still deemed long shots.
Teams Still Alive: #1 Clemson, #17 North Carolina, #14 Florida State
Clemson has already clinched the Atlantic division and hosts what should be an easy win against Wake Forest this week. They do have to travel to South Carolina next week, though. Can you imagine this Gamecocks team potentially eliminating both ACC divisional winners? Imagine that!
The Tar Heels control their destiny in the Coastal division, having not lost in ACC play yet. They do finish with not-easy road games at Virginia Tech and NC State. Just one slip-up and they may be out of the playoffs even if they win the division and/or beat Clemson in the league title game.
Florida State, more than any other program, is so close yet so far away. They can't win the Atlantic division and thus cannot win their conference. However, they will get the opportunity to beat Florida in the Swamp next weekend. Is there any way they move ahead of the ACC champion? Probably not.
If North Carolina loses one more game in the regular season they are bound to drop back to where they're ranked now. Do the Tar Heels jump into the playoffs from the late teens with a 11-2 record due to a win over Clemson? Does Florida State even jump over 1-loss Clemson at that point?
What's Best for Notre Dame?
Notre Dame does not control its own destiny and needs help in the form of other teams losing and for the Irish opponents from our schedule to keep winning. While Clemson losing potentially opens up a spot in the 4-team playoff that would de-value Notre Dame's loss and force our opponents to really dominate down the stretch to make up for it on our resume.
That's a lot to ask and feels very risky. Clemson winning out is best for the Irish.
Playoff Representation Temperature: Warm
Alabama is in the driver's seat but still needs to beat Auburn next weekend to clinch the SEC West title. As wacky as the Iron Bowl has been in the past the only 2 Tiger teams to beat Saban went a combined 26-2 and won the SEC both years. The last time the Tide played an Auburn team this bad it got out-of-control ugly.
Teams Still Alive: #2 Alabama, #8 Florida
The Gators and Tide are virtual locks to play each other in the SEC Title Game as Florida has already clinched the East division. In all likelihood, the winner of their matchup gets into the playoff with ease.
What's Best for Notre Dame?
The SEC is right up there with the Big Ten in their chances of getting a team in the playoff so it's best to just accept the league has already locked up a spot. If you're not of that mind then Alabama has to lose to Auburn or Florida. And if the Gators beat Alabama then Florida has to lose to the Seminoles next weekend.
The odds of this happening seem really low. I can see the Seminoles beating Florida but I can't see the Gators turning around and beating Alabama right after that. And I don't see the Tide losing at Auburn.
Playoff Representation Temperature: Mild
When you run the numbers, put together the odds, and ask the experts a consensus has formed that believe we're looking at the Big Ten Champion, SEC Champion, and ACC Champion as 3 slots in the playoff. In other words, Alabama, Clemson, and whomever comes out of the Big Ten.
As of today, that leaves Notre Dame vs. the Big 12.
Teams Still Alive: #6 Oklahoma State, #7 Oklahoma, #10 Baylor, #18 TCU
TCU isn't technically eliminated just yet but in reality they're probably toast. Their injuries are killing them and now they play perhaps the two most talented teams in conference to close the season. The Frogs may be 9-3 and unranked in the playoff poll in a mere 11 days.
Baylor is much more alive but still needs help around the country. They could get a big bump from winning this weekend over Oklahoma State but their non-conference slate is so bad that even a road win at TCU and a finale versus Texas might not be enough for them as a 1-loss conference champion.
What's Best for Notre Dame?
There's a major tipping point this weekend. If Oklahoma State holds off Baylor at home then Notre Dame's chances of making the playoff go down significantly. If the Bears spring the upset the odds move positively in the other direction for the Irish.
An undefeated Oklahoma State heading into Bedlam is bad news for Notre Dame. Either the Cowboys beat the Sooners and head to the playoff as the undefeated Big 12 champion or they give the Sooners the chance to upset an 11-0 rival, on the road, on the last week of the season to win the conference. Even though the committee has a lot of respect for Stanford's resume, from a perception standpoint, that's going to be tough to overcome as we hand the Cardinal their 3rd loss. Baylor can prevent this scenario AND make sure everyone in the Big 12 has at least 1 loss.
11-1 Notre Dame vs. 11-1 Oklahoma or 11-1 Oklahoma State or 11-1 Baylor
If Notre Dame wins out this looks like a very likely scenario for the playoff committee to deal with and it'll be a difficult decision.
A 1-loss Oklahoma State is probably the least likely of the 4 teams to make it in. They are the most likely to lose this weekend and I don't know if a win over Oklahoma to close the season is enough even if they are Big 12 champions--which would mean they'd need Baylor to lose to TCU or Texas for that to happen anyway.
A win by Oklahoma State in Bedlam gives the Sooners 2 losses which knocks Oklahoma out, obviously. But that would open the door to Baylor taking the conference should they beat Oklahoma State this weekend. The Bears and Cowboys would each have 1-loss and Baylor wins the head-to-head matchup. Is that enough for Baylor? They really had almost no margin for error with a loss and it's tough to give them the nod when, by beating TCU next week, they effectively knock the Frogs out of the rankings and would only have 1 win on their resume from a team in the Top 25.
Oklahoma's resume up against Notre Dame is the one that really looks tough. Here's my end-of-year projections for each team and their best wins:
Notre Dame wins listed first, Oklahoma second
11) UMass (3-9) vs. Kansas (0-12)
10) Boston College (3-9) vs. Iowa State (3-9)
9) Wake Forest (3-9) vs. Akron (6-6)
8) Virginia (3-9) vs. Kansas State (5-7)
7) Texas (4-8) vs. Tulsa (6-6)
6) Georgia Tech (4-8) vs. Texas Tech (7-5)
5) Temple (9-3)* vs. West Virginia (8-4)
4) USC (8-4) vs. Tennessee (8-4)
3) Pittsburgh (9-3) vs. TCU (9-3)
2) Navy (10-2)* vs. Oklahoma State (10-2)
1) Stanford (10-3) vs. Baylor (11-1)
There are 2 really important factors that the committee is going to have to deal with in order to pick between Oklahoma and Notre Dame.
One, how much of an advantage does Notre Dame have over Oklahoma due to the Sooners' loss to Texas and the Irish crushing the Longhorns? We know this will be a heavily factored difference between the teams but is it enough to give the potential playoff spot to Notre Dame?
Two, how much clout will Navy and Temple bring to the table in the eyes of the committee? With the schedules above Oklahoma has 1 more win over a Power 5 team and twice as many wins over Power 5 teams with winning records. How do the Middies and Owls balance that out?
Also, keep in mind that Navy and/or Temple can still win their division and even face each other in the AAC Title Game. I have Navy losing on the road to Houston and Temple losing to Memphis thus they'd finish 2nd in their respective divisions with the records above. But those are wildcards that could play a major part in determining the playoffs. Imagine if Navy really did finish 12-1? That'd give Notre Dame wins over 2 conference champions, assuming Stanford wins the Pac-12, too.
Lastly, the human element of publicizing the rankings each week has me curious as to how a potential Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma battle would ensue.
I would think that Oklahoma has a decent chance of passing Notre Dame for the rankings on December 1st at the conclusion of each team's regular season. The Sooners would be picking up their top 3 wins all in the last 3 weeks and I don't know if it'd be enough for the Stanford win to keep the Irish ahead.
However, Notre Dame could potentially have Stanford and/or Navy and/or Temple playing in conference title games on the weekend of December 5th while Oklahoma's resume is already wrapped up. Would a conference championship by any of those teams be enough to push Notre Dame back ahead of Oklahoma in the final poll?
For what it's worth, 10 Sports Illustrated college football writers recently talked about the possibility of the committee choosing between Notre Dame and Oklahoma. The Irish won that vote 7-3.